Oct 062018

Euridice, an opera by Jacopo Peri, with additional music by Giulio Caccini is the oldest surviving opera, first performed in Florence on this date in 1600 at the Palazzo Pitti with Peri himself singing the role of Orfeo. An earlier opera by Peri, Dafne (1597), is now lost. The libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini is based on books X and XI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses which recount the story of the legendary musician Orpheus and his wife Euridice. Because Europe’s actual oldest opera is lost, this date is the best we can do for dating the genesis of modern opera. Euridice was created for the marriage of Henry IV of France and Maria de Medici.

At the premiere, many of the roles were filled by members of Caccini’s entourage, including his daughter Francesca Caccini. Peri composed all of the music for the first production, but owing to the integral involvement of Caccini and his performers, some of Peri’s music was finally replaced by that of Caccini. When Caccini discovered that Peri intended to publish the opera with the added Caccini pieces, he rushed to finish his own version of Euridice using the same libretto, and managed to have his published before Peri’s. In his preface, Peri notes that all of the music was completed by the date of the first performance earning his efforts the designation Prima Euridice.

In creating the music for Euridice, Peri envisioned a vocal style that is half sung and half spoken. For less dramatic parts he created vocal lines close to the style of spoken language set over a sustained accompaniment. For impassioned scenes he explored stronger and more rapid melodies with steadily changing harmonies. Peri’s critics have observed that within the score of Euridice, he created no musically remarkable examples of either. However, he did use ranges and widths of register, as well as frequency and power of cadences, to distinguish different characters and dramatic moods. The voice and accompaniment are carefully paced to emphasize the tension and release in the text. Rhythmic and melodic inflections in the vocal lines closely, almost scientifically, imitate dramatic speech. In addition, impassioned exclamations are set with unprepared dissonances and unexpected movements in the bass. This extract may serve to show the style of the piece. It is pleasant enough, but not remarkable musically.

Euridice has its detractors, but there is general agreement that Peri established sound principles for operatic composition. Classic opera, henceforth, tells a story that exploits the interplay between aria and recitative, and uses a mix of solo, ensemble and choral singing. Peri’s Euridice tells the story of the musician Orpheus and his wife Euridice based on classic Greek legend, but with allowances for artistic license. According to the legend (which is actually retold in a number of ancient texts in Latin), Orpheus was a great musician who journeyed to the underworld to plead with the gods to revive his wife Euridice after she had been fatally injured.

Act 1


The opera opens with a simple melody by a singer representing the Tragic Muse, La Tragedia, and a short ritornello. Shepherds nearby and the Tragic Muse sing a conversation in recitatives and choruses, Daphne enters to notify everyone that Euridice has been fatally bitten by a serpent.

Scene 1

All of the nymphs and shepherds gather to celebrate the wedding of Orfeo and Euridice.

Scene 2

Orfeo is content after his wedding but is soon interrupted by Dafne. She brings the terrible news that Euridice has been bitten by a venomous snake and has died. Orfeo then vows to rescue her from the underworld.

Scene 3

Arcetro recounts that while Orfeo lay weeping, Venus, goddess of love, carries him off in her chariot.

Act 2

This opens with Orpheus pleading with Venere, Plutone, Prosperina, Caronte, and Radamanto in the underworld for the return of his beloved wife Euridice. Nearly the entire scene is carried in recitative. When the act closes, Orpheus is back with Tirsi and the other shepherds.

Scene 4

Venus and Orfeo arrive at the gates of the underworld. Venus suggests that through his legendary voice he might persuade Pluto to return Euridice to life. Orfeo succeeds and is allowed to leave with his bride.

Scene 5

Orfeo and Euridice return from the underworld and rejoice.

The entire opera, with libretto in Italian with an English translation, is here:


If you know the story of Orpheus and Eurydice you will know that the ending of the opera does not coincide with the Greek legend. In the original, Hades allows Orpheus to take Eurydice back but she is still a “shade” until she reaches the sunlight and gains human form again, and Orpheus must not look back until she is in the sunlight. Because she does not have a body, when she walks behind Orpheus she does not make any sound, and Orpheus, fearing he has been tricked by Hades looks back just before he reaches the surface to check she is there, and she is taken back to the Underworld. Lesson #1 people – HAVE FAITH.

Today’s recipe is for a version of pasta in brodo from the cookery book Opera (first published 1570from Bartolomeo Scappi, who was active from 1536 to 1570 – the period of this opera. I chose it, partly because it is contemporary Italian, partly because I am a fan of pasta in brodo, and partly because of the coincidence of names (“opera” in the book’s title means “works” or “actions”). Note that the soup can be made with broth or milk and that the seasonings include sugar and cinnamon. By all means boil up a crane or hare to make your broth.


Per far minestra di tagliatelli

Impastinosi due libre di fior di farina con tre uoua, & acqua tepida, & mescolisi bene sopra una tavola per lo spatio d’un quarto d’hora, & dapoi stendasi sottilmente con il bastone, & lascisi alquanto risciugare il sfoglio, & rimondinosi con lo sperone le parti piu grosse, che son gli orlicci, & quando sarà asciutto però non troppo, perche crepe rebbe, spoluerizzisi di fior di farina con il fetaccio, accioche non si attacchi, piglisi poi il bastone della pasta, & comincisi da un capo, & riuolgasi tutto lo sfoglio sopra il bastone leggiermente, cauisi il bastone, e taglisi lo sfoglio cosi riuolto per lo trauerso con un coltello largo sottile, e tagliati che saranno, slarghinosi, & lassinosi alquanto rasciugare, & asciutti che saranno, fettaccisi fuora per lo criuello il farinaccio, & facciasene minestra con brodo grasso di carne, o con latte, & butiro, & cotti che saranno, seruanosi caldi con cascio, zuccaro, & cannella, & uolendone far lasagne taglisi la pasta sul bastone per lungo, & compartasi la detta pasta in due parti parimente per lungo, e taglisi in quadretti, & faccianosi  cuocere in brodo di lepre, ouero di grua, o d’altra carna, o latte, & seruanosi calde con cascio, zuccaro, & cannella.

To prepare soup with tagliatelle
Work two pounds of flour, three eggs and warm water into a dough, kneading it on a table for a quarter of an hour. Roll it out thin with a rolling pin and let the sheet of dough dry a little. Trim away the irregular parts, the fringes, with a cutting wheel. When it has dried, though not too much because it will break up, sprinkle it with flour through a sieve so it will not stick. Then take the rolling pin and, beginning at one end, wrap the whole sheet loosely on to the pin, draw the pin out and cut the rolled-up dough crosswise with a broad, thin knife. When they are cut, flatten them. Let them dry out a little and, when they are dry, shake off the excess flour through a sieve. Make a soup of them with a fat meat broth, or milk and butter. When they are cooked, serve them hot with cheese, sugar and cinnamon. If you want to make lasagnas of them, cut the dough lengthwise on the pin, and likewise divide it lengthwise in two, and cut that into little squares. Cook them in the broth of a hare, a crane or some other meat, or in milk. Serve them hot with cheese, sugar and cinnamon.



Aug 232013


Today is the Vulcanalia, the ancient celebration of the god Vulcan in the Roman pantheon.  Vulcan was the son of Jupiter and Juno, and brother of Mars. He is the god of fire, including the fire of volcanoes , and the god of craftsmen who use fire, such as blacksmiths.  He is often depicted as a craftsman with a hammer and forge.  He has analogs in many ancient cultures, including Greece and Egypt, so tales about him are often muddled and contradictory.  Here’s my pastiche that accords with some of the threads. In all the tales he is depicted as deformed and brutal (especially in his sexuality), yet capable of producing the most wondrous things – thrones for the gods, exquisite jewelry, and powerful weapons.  As such he represents the twin aspects of fire: production and destruction.  All cooks know this about fire!!!

Vulcan was the son of Jupiter and Juno.  He was so ugly at birth that Juno flung him from Mt Olympus in disgust.  He fell for a day and a night, landing in the sea and breaking his leg in the fall. Ever after he had a limp.  Vulcan sank to the depths where the sea-nymph, Thetis, found him and took him to her underwater grotto, raising him as her own son. Vulcan had a happy childhood with dolphins as his playmates and pearls as his toys. Late in his childhood, he found the remains of a fisherman’s fire on the beach and became fascinated with an unextinguished coal, still red-hot and glowing.

Vulcan carefully shut this precious coal in a clamshell and took it back to his underwater grotto and made a fire with it. On the first day after, Vulcan stared at this fire for hours on end. On the second day, he discovered that when he made the fire hotter with bellows, certain stones gave up metals: iron, silver, and gold. On the third day he beat the cooled metals into shapes: bracelets, chains, swords and shields. Vulcan made pearl-handled knives and spoons for his foster mother, he made a silver chariot for himself, and bridles so that seahorses could transport him quickly. He even made slave-girls of gold to wait on him and do his bidding.


At one point, Thetis left her underwater grotto to attend a dinner party on Mount Olympus wearing a beautiful necklace of silver and sapphires, which Vulcan had made for her. Juno admired the necklace and asked where she could get one. Thetis became flustered causing Juno to become suspicious and, at last, the queen god discovered the truth: the baby she had once rejected had grown into a talented artisan. Juno was furious and demanded that Vulcan return home. He refused. However he did send Juno a beautifully constructed chair made of silver and gold, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Juno was delighted with this gift, but as soon as she sat in it her weight triggered hidden springs and metal bands that sprung forth to hold her fast. The more she shrieked and struggled the more firmly the mechanical throne gripped her. For three days Juno sat fuming, still trapped in Vulcan’s chair. She could not sleep, she could not stretch, she could not eat. This was Vulcan’s revenge for her rejection.

Jupiter finally saved Juno by promising Vulcan that if he released her, he would give him a wife, Venus the goddess of love and beauty. Vulcan agreed and married Venus. He later built a smithy under Mount Etna on the island of Sicily. It was said that whenever Venus is unfaithful (usually with Vulcan’s brother, Mars), Vulcan grows angry and beats the red-hot metal with such a force that sparks and smoke rise up from the top of the mountain, to create a volcanic eruption. Having ascended Etna during a particularly active period I can understand the origin of this tale. You can see the lava flows in pictures, but no one tells you about the noise. As rocks fly out of the cone there is an almost deafening banging like the hammering of a god on his forge.

Mt Etna

Mt Etna

With the assistance of the Cyclops, Vulcan made Jupiter fresh thunderbolts when the old ones decayed. He also made a helmet for Pluto, which rendered him invisible and a trident for Neptune, which shook both land and sea. At the request of Thetis he fabricated the divine armor of Achilles (her son), whose shield is so beautifully described by Homer, and also the invincible armor of Aeneas, at the entreaty of Venus. These tales may well be Greek and Roman versions of the same story.

Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan circa 1710 by Sir James Thornhill 1675 or 76-1734

When Jupiter was angry at mortals for stealing fire he requested a special revenge from the gods.  Vulcan fashioned Pandora out of clay, and Jupiter gave her the secret box that was not to be opened. You know what happens when you tell humans not to do something.


It was the custom in the Roman Empire, after gaining a victory in war, to pile the arms of the enemy in a heap on the field of battle, and make a sacrifice of them to Vulcan. His principal temple was in a consecrated grove at the foot of mount Etna, in which a fire continually burnt. According to legend, Romulus built Vulcan a temple outside the walls of the city, the augurs being of the opinion that the god of fire ought not to be admitted within the city. But in historic times he had two temples within Rome, one of which was used as a meeting house when Rome was in grave danger.

Vulcanalia was part of a cycle of four agricultural festivities in the second half of August (Consualia on August 21st, Vulcanalia on 23rd, Opiconsivia on 25th, and Volturnalia on 27th). Two of them, Consualia and Opiconsivia, concerned the blessing of harvesting and storing grain, and two, Vulcania and Volturnalia, concerned threats to the harvest, fire and flood respectively.  Almost nothing is known about how the Vulcanalia was celebrated except that bonfires were lit outside the city and small animals were sacrificed and eaten.  It is also said that farmers began their work by candlelight on that morning.


According to some ancient sources the first intimations of the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii, began on the Vulcanalia of 79 CE, although it is now impossible to date the event precisely.  Maybe this was no more than poetic license on the part of early historians.  Nonetheless I will take this fanciful historical note as an excuse for my recipe of the day, Chicken Vesuvius. This is a Neapolitan dish, but is rather unusual in that it uses potatoes for the starch rather than pasta. Peas are the most common vegetable, but I am partial to artichoke hearts.


Chicken Vesuvius


3 tbsps extra virgin olive oil
1 2 lb (1 kilo) chicken
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ lbs (750 g) small red-skinned potatoes, halved
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
¾ cup dry white wine
¾ cup chicken broth
1 ½ tsps dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
1 cup peas (or 8 oz artichoke hearts quartered)
2 tbsps unsalted butter


Preheat the oven to 450°F/230°C.

Cut the chicken into 8 pieces (2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 4 breast pieces). Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven over high heat.

Working in batches, sauté the chicken until golden on all sides.  Transfer the pieces to a bowl when browned.

Add the potatoes to the pot and sauté until they are golden brown. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Do not let it take on color.

Add the wine and stir to scrape up any brown bits on the bottom of the pot.

Add the broth, oregano, and thyme. Return the chicken to the pot. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Cover and bake in the oven until the chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes.

Transfer the chicken to a platter. Arrange the potatoes around chicken. Keep warm.

Add the peas (or artichoke hearts) to the sauce in the pot. Cover and simmer over high heat until the peas are cooked, stirring often, about 4 minutes. Turn heat to low. Stir in the butter. Pour the sauce over chicken and potatoes, and serve.

Serves 4